A handheld monopod helps a little, but with a 0.4s exposure, the lack of stabilisation on the body shows, when used with the 16mm f2.4 lens. And while, Adobe's Lightroom supports the NX200 profile and some of the lenses for profile correction, most of the loss of detail in this shot is down to camera and subject movement. Image © Richard Kilpatrick
With its 20-megapixel sensor and compact size, Samsung’s top-of-the-range micro camera is a compelling proposition on paper. Richard Kilpatrick finds out whether the promise is fulfilled in reality.
Author: Richard Kilpatrick
07 Mar 2012 Tags: Samsung
Industrial design is all about compromises. In an ideal world we could enjoy the capabilities of a Nikon D4 in a body the size of an old Pentax 110, with lenses that match Zeiss’ best designs, yet weigh next to nothing. The merging of electronic, computer and consumable technology seems to bring such idealistic visions ever closer to reality, but there are plenty more steps along the way.
The most recent step is the adoption of live view not as a bonus, but as an inherent enabling technology, allowing camera makers to remove the optical path from our eyes to the lens’ view of the world, and reduce the bulk of the camera accordingly. Sony’s NEX has been successful in this regard, blending uncompromised digital SLR sensor technology with a purpose-built system. But Sony is not alone in this field, and at the end of 2011 Samsung’s NX200 offered an extremely credible challenger.
Samsung’s high-end consumer presence has been progressing in the background, albeit slightly overshadowed by UK market confusion between the Pentax and Samsung DSLRs. They briefly led the megapixel race, with a 14.6-megapixel model when 10-12 megapixels was more typical. And the NX10 was one of the first mirrorless APS-C systems to be developed. The NX100 introduced the slim form factor to Samsung’s range, and now the NX200 refines that design, making it an extremely compelling proposition on paper.
A compact, magnesium-alloy body carries some unique technology. As a micro-electronics pioneer, Samsung has leveraged technology such as OLED displays to improve battery life and refresh rates, and the sensor offers 20.3 megapixels at a price point more readily associated with 16-megapixel systems. But unlike the NX100, the option of an electronic viewfinder has been removed, leaving a purely display-based interface for composition – a decision that will rule it out for many photographers immediately. Samsung has sensibly retained a traditional hotshoe, and bundled a small GN16 flash with the body (with non-TTL flash a 1/180s sync is supported without HSS or second curtain options).
The i-Function lenses introduced with the NX100 give instant access to a wide range of parameters, from scene modes to basic manual controls, and allow the NX to transcend many of the limitations designed into most compact solutions. As a versatile substitute for direct manual controls, the ring on the lens can quickly serve as a manual focus or aperture control, with the wheel on the body providing shutter speed. It’s all configurable, of course, but provides a quick way for beginners looking for those vital adjustments to access and clearly verify the changes they’re making.
Manual mode is well thought out, although it’s still a two-stage operation to access adjustments, requiring the i-Function button. This is necessary to select settings such as white balance or ISO, and is a welcome feature in that regard, as well as preventing inadvertent adjustment, but it would make sense to add a setting for advanced users that puts the ring into full-time aperture or focus mode.
Currently the NX200 is supported by a fairly small selection of lenses in a relatively narrow range of focal lengths. BJP has reviewed it with the 16mm f/2.4 18-55mm OIS and 20-50mm non-stabilised collapsible zoom, which is the most compact and practical pairing. Kits generally feature the 18-55mm or the 20‑50mm options, and are just under £500 street price in the UK.
The range also includes a 20mm f/2.8, 30mm f/2 and the usual 18‑200mm and 50-200mm variable aperture zooms. A 60mm f/2.8 stabilised macro has recently been released, and a “premium” 85mm f/1.4 suggests a more professional spec line-up may be on the cards. For those who can’t wait and don’t mind manual focus, Samyang has produced some dedicated NX-mount versions of its wide and prime lenses, and adapters are available for most mounts – although there are fewer options than the Sony NEX.
While the specifications may imply that the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 is the better choice of kit lens, Samsung’s offering of both this and the 20-50mm f/3.5-5.6 at similar prices reflects the different needs of compact camera buyers. The 20-50mm is a compact lens and, stabilisation aside, performs well for the budget price and build; the 18-55mm is a fairly substantial optic with little to separate it beyond the image stabilisation. As the NX200’s high ISO performance is quite acceptable, experienced shooters can forgo the OIS lens and still get acceptable images, but more casual photographers may prefer the “fit and forget” qualities of the bigger zoom, which rarely turns in a bad image when the camera is in full auto mode. As you might expect at this budget end, neither lens is stunning – both display notable chromatic aberration, and the 20-50mm in particular suffers from distortion that is corrected in‑camera, but leaves soft corners. But neither of these mid-range zooms is a premium lens either in intent or pricing, and they are working with a high-resolution sensor – for the money Samsung has done admirably, and consumers choosing between budget DSLRs, the NEX and the Samsung won’t be unhappy with the NX200’s results.
The motion panning trick is quite impressive for small and online reproduction and sharing, though the lens' chromatic aberration and the JPEG compression result in some fairly unpleasant details in areas of high contrast. It's better than the shoot, compose, shoot technique employed by many compacts, and works both horizontally and vertically. Image © Richard Kilpatrick.
The 16mm f/2.4 is aimed at more serious shooters, but is still a fairly inexpensive lens by DSLR standards. A metal mount and a decent maximum aperture hint at professional intentions. Unfortunately, the performance of this wide lens falls short of expectations – marked distortion when not using the in-camera correction, field curvature and the inevitable soft corners and falloff spoil the promise of the initial wide-open sharpness in the centre. For many street shooters, the APS-C and 16mm lens is a natural combination, so it’s a shame that the NX200’s offering costs more than the Sony’s slightly slower equivalent.
Samsung’s second offering in the category of “mirrorless interchangeable-lens compacts” category (in itself, a group within a category, taking hair-splitting to the extreme in its nomenculture) is extremely promising as a concept. The 20.3-megapixel sensor is highly competitive, with noise performance acceptable at ISO 6400, and usable with processing and for small repro at 12,800. In Germany, the NX200 is bundled with Capture One, a great indicator of more serious market ambitions. The build and handling of the camera is excellent, the i-Function well thought out, and the video and scene modes are more than adequate for the price, with the motion-sensing panoramic sweep, and 0.25× (120fps) VGA recording modes striking us as well-thought-out creative options. The loss of the EVF is surprising, but not as much of a disappointment as the NX100‘s low resolution EVF-10 would have been paired with this body, and Samsung’s decision to retain a traditional hotshoe makes more sense than the dedicated accessory ports usually found on compacts.
The downside of the NX200 is that the bundled lenses do not impress. The 18-55mm is average, and of course, no smaller than any other lens of that type, and the 16mm and 20-50mm are wasted on the sensor, which represents a big step forward from the NX100’s 14.6-megapixel unit. The premium lens line, starting with the 60mm Macro, may bring the optics closer to the body’s build and sensor capabilities, at which point it will be an extremely competitive package. Even now, though, with inexpensive adapters for most lens mounts, it is excellent value if you’re looking for the largest output resolution for your money in a relatively compact body.
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